Vamika Jain, a Laidlaw Scholar at the University of Toronto, on access to legal rights for refugees in India, and being comfortable with uncertainty.
My research is called "Benevolence to Refoulment: An Examination of the Access to Legal Rights for Refugee Populations in India". Through case studies on four primary refugee populations residing in India - Tibetan, Chakma, Sri Lankan Tamil and Rohingya - my research seeks to reveal the large variation in the access to legal rights accessible to each group. Ranging from benevolent state support for Tibetans to forced deportation for the Rohingya, refugees are confronted with arbitrary decision-making and constant precarity. With very little research done in this area, I’ve been able to share my research with NGOs working in this space and support their advocacy.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
Visiting my hilly hometown of Dehradun in India one summer, I stopped by the Buddhist monastery in my neighbourhood to have tea with the old Tibetan mola, or grandmother, who taught music to children in the area, including myself. I was talking to her about the feeling of coming home in the summer when she asked me: "'Where' is home for me, Vam, 'what' is my home?" Her question was particularly poignant since I knew that she had lived in this town for nearly 50 years, and her grandchildren, born here, were playing in the courtyard that stood in front of us. And yet, 50 years later, the answer to her question had not become any easier than her first day in India. My university education equipped me with the tools to explore these questions on a deeper level, and that is where my research originated.
What is the most memorable moment from your Laidlaw experience?
During the course of my research, I was in touch with many NGOs and human rights lawyers working with refugees in India. A few months after my research was completed, I attended an advocacy event organized by one of them. Entirely unexpectedly, they referenced my work in their presentation. It was a quick sentence and just a few points but to see it come to life in this way was enormously humbling and exciting!
Also, there was one time where I spent 4 days looking for a secondary source on a specific issue and then suddenly found it entirely accidentally through a social media post someone sent to me! Amazing feeling!
What is the biggest challenge you came across in your research and leadership journeys so far, and what did you learn from it?
Confronting the uncontrollable. No matter how much you plan ahead for every possibility, there are things entirely out of control that appear as roadblocks. For example, my ethics board approval to conduct interviews was nearly 2 months late because of a technical error in the system. I had to delay/restructure my entire project. I learned how to be comfortable with uncertainty and to respond effectively when such hurdles appear.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
Laidlaw helped me discover my own voice, and to carry it forward with confidence, humility and empathy. Most importantly, it helped me recognize how this voice is entirely incomplete without collaboration, without the unexpected contributions of so many, and without a community willing to listen and amplify. And so, to me, being a Laidlaw Scholar means being a listener, amplifier and collaborator in every sphere!
Which leaders inspire you the most and why?
My mentor, Dr Arne Kislenko: because he never says ‘no,’ he always says ‘let’s try!’
Also Mr GK Swamy, a figure from my childhood who taught me that the equator wasn’t red in color because of how hot it was and showed me how to look beyond the obvious and to question every assumption. Mr Swamy spent every minute fighting enormous battles to secure the right to education for every marginalized child in his village. It was a costly battle, and yet he never stopped smiling through it!
Describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
Mountains, books, music, all within a space where a spectrum of individuals are exchanging ideas and experiences freely, with no obligation or ill-feeling. This is an environment I hope to create around me.
📺 Currently binging: The West Wing (for the 6th time)
🎵 My quarantine anthem: When Chai Met Toast (A local indie Indian band!)
📚 My top book recommendation: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Ramen, and the smell of wet earth in the woods!
Vamika is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at the University of Toronto Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.
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